Italy is one of the most recognisable countries on the map. Shaped like a boot, it’s easy to pick out amongst other countries on the European continent. The one thing many people tend to think, however, is that everyone in Italy speaks one homogenous dialect and all traditional Italian dishes are made the same way.
This is a common enough misconception to have, of course, thanks—or no thanks—to Hollywood only portraying certain elements of the Italian language, or many people thinking that spaghetti, fettucine and lasagna noodles, just for example, are the be-all and end-all of traditional food. But read on, and you’ll learn about some of the variations and history of Italy’s dialects and food.
Dialects from the North and South of Italy
Just as someone from the southern portion of the UK would recognise an accent from the north, someone from the northern regions would recognise an accent from the southern parts. You might be speaking English, but the pronunciations of certain words would definitely be different, and it’s the same with American accents. Someone from Brooklyn, New York sounds completely different from someone located in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The concept is not so dissimilar with the Italian language. In the regions that contain Venice and Genoa for example, you won’t necessarily hear Italian as it’s spoken in Rome, or even Sicily. Instead of each region’s variation being referred to generally as ‘northern Italian,’ each region’s dialect will be referred to as belonging to that region: citizens of Veneto speak Venetian, people from Genoa will be heard speaking Ligurian, and so on. In the southern regions, such as Campania (the ‘shin’ of the boot), Apulia (the ‘heel’), Calabria (the ‘toe’), and of course Sicily and Sardinia, the latter being an island once taken over by the French, you’ll hear many different dialects based on geographic location. Some dialect names include Pugliese, Apulian and Barese, along with Campanian and Ciletano, and of course, Sicilian.
Regional Food Cooked Different Ways
While there are traditional Italian dishes that many people recognise, such as lasagne, no one region makes one particular dish the same way. It’s all based on availability of ingredients and where each region is located. Seafood that’s common around Liguria, for example is going to be different than what’s available on the coast of Sicily, so even though they might make a similar pasta dish, they might use different types of shrimp, for example.
Also, there are various vegetables that have become part of certain regional dishes based on either trade routes or foreign occupation. For instance, tomatoes, chiefly an ingredient used in the southern regions, were introduced to Italy only after Christopher Columbus brought them from the New World, and they didn’t get used as food until Sicilians decided to take the bold step and mimic what Italy’s Spanish neighbours were doing. And though you might find tomatoes in northern Italy, they’re chiefly a southern-region ingredient, largely due to southern Italy’s sunny climate.
Another vegetable that is not native to Italy, but has become part of southern Italian cuisine is the melanzane, or eggplant, which the Arabs brought to Italy, thanks to their occasional visits to—and occupations of—southern Italy in the 11th century. Overall, if you travel to Italy, you might notice that in the northern regions, you’ll see dishes influenced by French and other northern European countries, and the southern regions were more influenced by cuisines to the south of Italy.
So the next time someone says to you that they want to learn the Italian language, or learn authentic Italian cuisine, count on them being shocked when you ask them ‘which region’ or ‘which dialect.’